It is clear from watching "The September Issue" that Meryl Streep made considerable use of her improvising skills during her portrayal of Miranda Priestly, "The Devil Wears Prada" doppelganger for real-life Vogue fashionatrix Anna Wintour.
If this lightweight but engaging documentary about the production of the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine does nothing else, it proves that all the press about the frostily aloof Wintour is true -- the woman is stone, just as inscrutable when her trademark Jackie O sunglasses are off as when they are on. As she dispassionately directs her staff and makes sweeping, multimillion-dollar decisions, it is not beyotch we see, but a magazine-making machine.
The film begins five months before the 840-page issue in question hits newsstands. We see Wintour coolly assessing some representative Fall 2007 collections, most notably the Yves Saint Laurent collection, which she damns with faint praise for being devoid of color. We witness a mortified and fawning designer try to pass black garments off as navy and emerald green.
We also see multiple takes of Wintour as she is most often seen, front-and-center at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week shows, sunglasses on, legs and arms crossed, her face just as immobile as her signature pageboy haircut, with her court jester, Andre Leon Talley, by her side.
The film shows the Vogue staff discussing the collections, offering suggestions for which trends to highlight, awaiting the Wintour fiat on what the September book will contain. Underlings pull clothing samples for Wintour to vet; they wander in and out of her office (decorated in a French Provincial style) with countless storyboards, and they make frequent trips to the wall upon which thumbnail versions of every page of the magazine are pinned, constantly editing and rearranging depending on Wintour's whims.
It is widely accepted in the fashion industry that Wintour, who has been Vogue's editor-in-chief for 20 years, can make or break a designer; that she is single-handedly responsible for launching trends that make fashion houses and retailers millions of dollars in a given season.
But considering the power she undoubtedly wields, the Wintour of "The September Issue" seems to take little joy in her work. In a handful of brief but telling interviews, she comes off as defensive, almost ashamed, about her role. She notes that when she was filling out college applications her father told her to say that becoming editor of Vogue was her career goal -- thus her goal was imposed rather than chosen. She talks almost ruefully of her civicly and politically involved siblings and their "amusement" at her work. And she has a similar response when her teenage daughter indicates she has no interest in the fashion business.
Watching Wintour run affectlessly through her paces would grow wearisome were it not for the presence of her creative director, Grace Coddington, who steals the film right out from under the boss.
Coddington is a fascinating creature -- a frumpy and frizzled yang to Wintour's primped and polished yin. Coddington, who started at Vogue on the same day as Wintour, is a former model whose career ended after a car accident, but who channeled her love of fashion and beauty into a career as the pre-eminent fashion stylist in the world.
It is Coddington, not Wintour, who conceptualizes Vogue's transcendently beautiful, artistic photo spreads; it is Coddington who works hand in hand with photographers like Patrick Demarchelier and Mario Testino, and who dresses, accessorizes and directs the models. And it is Coddington who can stand up to Wintour, though she often loses the battles and sees the fruits of her creative vision and hard work edited from the book.
The film is also 90 minutes of eye candy. It is shot beautifully -- it won the 2009 cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival. Like 2008's "Valentino: The Last Emperor," it is a documentary that is a joy to watch and a hoot to dissect with friends later.
The September Issue
3 1/2 (out of four)
Starring: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Andre Leon Talley
Directed by: R.J. Cutler
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
A documentary chronicling Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's preparations for the 2007 fall-fashion issue.